“Actually wanted us to lose the last few games, so it would speed up his departure, never thought I’d see the day when I wanted my own team to lose, that’s the extent of how bad things got”.
This was a tweet from a West Brom fan in the aftermath of the sacking of their Head Coach and it is one that sums up the situation perfectly; West Brom were right to sack Tony Pulis.
Over the last few days, there have been many opinions in the press – whether on the TV, radio or in the newspapers – from football experts arguing. Opinions like: West Brom are stupid to sack Pulis and they deserve what they get as a result; or that Pulis is the sort of manager that West Brom need to turn their situation around. However, if you scratch beneath the surface and take a closer look at the club, you find a side performing awfully (2 wins from their last 21 league games), a dreadful style of football, alarmingly widespread fan disillusionment and disappointing team selections in a side that looks bereft of confidence.
Ultimately, West Brom will get a lot of criticism for their decision, even more so if they do not maintain their Premier League status this season, but something drastic needed to happen to turn around their form. If we rewind to the 18th March, West Brom had just beaten Arsenal 3-1 at home and were lying in 8th in the Premier League, 7 points clear of Stoke in 9th and looking rosy. Everything was gearing up for a great end to what would be a memorable season showing real signs of development. Nevertheless, 2 points from the last 9 games put a downer on proceedings, resulting in the club meandering to a 10th place finish (although still very impressive for the club). Even though West Brom went unbeaten in August with two successive victories to start the season over Bournemouth and Burnley, the form from the end of last season seems to have been carried over to this year with no victories in the league since Burnley on the 19th August (over three months ago). Added to this is the fact that West Brom have had a relatively easy start to the season. Included in this run are poor defeats to Huddersfield, Brighton and Southampton, all teams ‘the Albion’ would expect to win points off. Coupled with poor performances in draws at home to West Ham and Watford, the Baggies have failed to make the most of early season opportunities with fixtures against Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United all to come within the next month. At the present moment, West Brom have scored 9 goals and conceded 18. At the same time last season, they had scored 16 and conceded 14, demonstrating the backward direction the team has gone in with this form.
In addition to this form is the dreadful style of football that the side is playing. It seems to be the consensus amongst the media these days that West Brom play a boring, simplistic style of football. However, it was not long ago when the Baggies fans were entertained with the enterprising styles under Tony Mowbray, Roberto Di Matteo and Steve Clarke. Whilst it must be acknowledged that West Brom generally struggled in the Premier League with these almost carefree styles – compared to Pulis’ stronger record – there surely must be a balance where they can play some entertaining football whilst being successful in their aims.
People will say that West Brom have become too big for their boots with this move and that they should be content with Premier League survival. And largely, West Brom fans are content. But, when that is done in such a way that it disillusions a large proportion of the fan base it means that if, or when, results turn, there is always going to be very little patience for the manager having implemented that style. Similarly, part of the style that Pulis’ outfits possessin is a resolute defence and it is something, along with success from set pieces, which were the principal factors behind the successful West Brom team last season. So when they have 1 clean sheet in 11 games in all competitions, the team is going to struggle. Some would say that when a Pulis team can’t defend, with the poor attacking intent that they have been showing, what is the point of a Pulis team? This lack of attacking intent has been demonstrated in the nullifying of West Brom’s previously potent set pieces. Last year 21 of their 43 goals were scored from set pieces compared to 3 of their 9 goals so far this season. As a result, the Baggies have struggled to win games.
It must be acknowledged that there was even distaste last season, with many wanting Pulis out before a 2-1 away win in November at Leicester (a win that was inspired by Matt Phillips and became a kick-starter for the season). Controversially though, Phillips has been sparsely used this season which brings me onto the next point of poor team selection. To be fair to Pulis, he has done well in the past two seasons with a relatively limited squad which he has gradually built over time. As he said in his leaving statement, it is no question that he has improved the side from the mess he inherited post Alan Irvine in January 2015. However, this summer, West Brom’s transfer business was seen as a success. The trimming of dead wood in the squad such as Callum McManaman and Sebastien Pocognoli was undertaken and West Brom made 6 strong signings, spending a rumoured £34 million in the process; Ahmed Hegazi (loan fee – £1m), Jay Rodriguez (£12m), Gareth Barry (£1m), Oliver Burke (£15m), Kieran Gibbs (£5m) and the marquee signing of the summer, Grzegorz Krychowiak (loan). This was a real sign of intent from the club and was perfect for developing on the platform laid last year. However, Gibbs, Burke and Krychowiak are yet to play in a victory for the club and the club have not kicked on.
In terms of Phillips, he was a revelation for the club last year with 4 goals and 8 assists in 27 appearances and was key in the club’s assault up the table during the mid-season. However, this year he has rarely featured and been on the bench in many recent games only making 6 starts this year. Similarly, other creative players such as Chris Brunt and James McClean have rarely started this year and it is no surprise that the Baggies have only scored 9 goals. Phillips and Brunt’s set pieces last season were a key factor in the number of goals from set pieces and their quality delivery has been missing this term with their lack of appearances. The attempts of Pulis, seen as a traditional manager in many senses, to adapt, must be acknowledged, with a switch to a 5-3-2 formation to try to improve results. However, the 3 midfielders have been a key problem for the side with Barry, Livermore and Krychowiak being the players to fill these spaces. They are all fantastic players on their own, but they all play similar roles and despite repeated poor performances and results with this combination, Pulis has been stubborn in his insistence to keep them in the side despite much objection by fans and local media. The problem is that they are all defensive midfielders in terms of Barry and Livermore, and Krychowiak is what one would call a deep-lying playmaker in terms of spraying the passes from deep. Pulis has encouraged the Pole to burst forward almost as a box-to-box midfielder but this is not his natural game meaning that there is such a gap between the midfield and the front 2, resulting in very few chances being created. This combination could be accepted by fans in games against the big sides, but in must-win fixtures against teams such as Huddersfield and Southampton it was never going to be popular and Pulis’ resistance to change in this department after poor results frustrated the fans a great amount. In West Brom’s line-up away at Huddersfield, there were 5 defenders and 3 defensive-minded midfielders in the side which resulted in a very poor performance and a 1-0 defeat against the 10-men of the newly-promoted side. This poor team selection is coupled with the fact that he has been unable to get the side playing together, looking disjointed and uninspiring.
Pulis has also used many excuses which has frustrated the fans, including those about injuries claiming that the Baggies are suffering an injury crisis. This is a strange one as although important players such as Craig Dawson and James Morrison are currently side-lined, there really isn’t much evidence to suggest as such at the club. At the weekend, the bench read; Boaz Myhill, Alan Nyom, Claudio Yacob, Chris Brunt, Oliver Burke, Hal Robson-Kanu and James McClean. This is a pretty solid premier league bench to have and Nacer Chadli didn’t even make the squad and so this doesn’t seem like a very big injury crisis to me. Furthermore, Pulis has never been a manager to rely on stats, often dismissing these, whether positive or negative for the side, but at the weekend in his programme notes against Chelsea he defended his record using stats! He reeled out the facts including one that he finished as the top manager per £ per point in the Premier League last season which, whilst an impressive stat, the fact that he felt the need to use something he is usually so against suggests that even he acknowledged the pressure he was under.
The disillusionment amongst the West Brom fan base was another reason why the club was right to give Pulis the boot. In the days since his sacking, it seems the whole negative cloud surrounding the club has lifted. Again, people may argue that West Brom have got too big for their boots but there is sense amongst the fan base that they have got their club back. Under Pulis, the enjoyment had been sucked out for the fans. Even though Pulis has kept West Brom up in his three seasons – an achievement which he deserves credit for – there is more to football than results. But when the results stop coming, what happens next? If you strip back all the money involved in football today, fans fall in love with the game for the pride, passion and enjoyment that it gives. West Brom in recent weeks have been providing none of this for their fans. There is a sense that the excitement is back at the club with his departure.
The fans have generally been supported despite getting more and more dejected with the style of play and results until the Huddersfield defeat the other week when many vociferously voiced their discontent. Had it not been for that watershed moment, perhaps Pulis may have had until Christmas but it was such a poor performance and defeat, following similar ones against Southampton and Brighton. This was followed by an absolute hammering at home to Chelsea which ended up tipping the chairman and owner (who was in attendance for the first time since the opening day of the season) over the edge. After the Chelsea defeat, there was almost more apathy than anger towards Pulis, something which Pulis has caused. Attendances have been dwindling for the past few seasons. In 2015, the year Pulis joined, The Hawthorns averaged 25,194 fans but have only averaged 23,876 in 2017. This is despite an improving league position which shows the impact the poor style has had on the fan base. The Baggies Chairman John Williams has done some great work in trying to attract fans such as the “Kids for a Quid” scheme for the upcoming home game vs Newcastle. However, with the increasing disillusionment amongst fans with the team and Pulis, this hasn’t seemed to have helped at all.
Moreover, it was recently discovered that the chairman of West Brom’s minor shareholders, Neil Reynolds, stepped down in June in a protest over head coach Tony Pulis.
He was quoted as saying; “I’m so fed up with Pulis and his football … I can’t stomach it anymore, he has killed my love for the club in particular and football in general. I’ve been an Albion supporter for 60 years and never in all that time have I felt so disenchanted”. This is a damning statement and again, shows the dissatisfaction amongst supporters and although it is something that is not as well known to those that don’t follow the Baggies closely, suggests that something needed to be done.
This article is not meant to be one bashing Tony Pulis. He is a good Premier League manager and West Brom fans should be appreciative for what he did for the club as they have definitely developed under his stewardship. However, it was obvious that his time at the club was coming to the end. There was just too much disgruntlement from supporters and the poor results when the team had been playing such a poor style meant that there was little margin for error. This only increased the criticism for him over over things such as poor team selections. The Baggies had perhaps outgrown Pulis and this ending of his story is remarkably similar to his ending at Stoke. There is no doubt that Pulis will probably perform a great job in saving a team struggling at the bottom of the league again in the future but West Brom needed to move on. Whilst the alternatives don’t look to be too appealing for the fans at the moment with not many attractive managers out there, there is surely more to football than what Tony Pulis was offering West Brom; after all it is about passion and excitement for the fans which hopefully the next manager will bring and this is what has been severely lacking in recent times.
By Will Pickworth